I still haven’t been able to write about visiting the Killing Fields of Cambodia and walking on top of unearthed bones 40 years after the ground ran red with blood, so I’m forever impressed with author Loung Ung who lived through the horror and is, somehow, able to expose the dark details in painful but necessary prose in First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.
The book received some criticism for historical inaccuracies, but given that this is the memoir of a person who was driven from her home, separated from her family, and trained as a child soldier – all before reaching the tender age of 10 – it is the raw trauma through the lens of that child that should be the focus and the lesson.
We must accept the unique experience of the child – who guides us through a world where murder and rape are more predictable than food rations – as truth in memory. And memories are fickle and fleeting, no matter how painful and vivid they are.
I’m grateful to Loung Ung for digging into those memories, and for reminding the world of what happened in Cambodia, and for specifically reminding the Western world. Speaking as an American born just one year after Cambodia was liberated from the clutches of the Khmer, this is a genocide that didn’t make it into our history lessons.
It wasn’t until I went to the Killing Fields and to the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh that I realized the full extent of the genocide and our “Secret War”. From 1969-1970 alone, in an effort to cut off the underground supply chain known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. dropped more bombs on Cambodia (and Laos) than we used in all of World War II.
And it wasn’t just the landmines that were left behind when the United States finally ended the onslaught, and the Vietnamese abandoned the tunnels carved into the countryside of Cambodia.
A power vacuum was left wide open, and it was eagerly and opportunistically filled by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who set out to build their “perfect agrarian society”, while the United States kept war-weary eyes on Vietnam and called home her troops.
I usually declare “no spoilers” right about here in my book reviews, but we’re working with a tale in which the title itself is a spoiler.
Driven from their home and forced to move with a mass exodus of people toward an unknown destination in the countryside, the Ung family worked to hide their middle-class identity and their educated status in a world in which “elites” were so hunted that one could be executed for the simple act of wearing eyeglasses.
Nearly all residents were pushed out of Phnom Penh, and one in four will not return. Just imagine that.
Of course, the Ung family is desperately focused on their own plight rather than that of the nation. Labor camps, starvation, deathly illnesses, and the whims of murderous Khmer Rouge soldiers await.
Ultimately, Loung Ung’s mother will make the heart-breaking decision to send her very young children walking in opposite directions, claiming to be orphans, in the hopes that some will survive. The miracle is that some do.
The pain, resilience, loyalty, anger, and love that vibrates through this book makes it a pageturner – no matter how hard the reality of the situation is to comprehend.
There are times when Ung “transports” to “see” the deaths of her family members, citing a keen intuition. So it is that we are presented with the facts of fate rather than what probably happened. That part was hard for me to swallow, but I reason with it this way: If I had no idea what happened to my father other than that he was taken away to never return, wouldn’t I need to assign him a fate? No matter how awful? I think I would, indeed.
But it is for this reason, that I like the movie First They Killed My Father directed by Angelina Jolie a bit better than the book. This isn’t to say that the book isn’t excellent. It’s just that the movie provides that third-person perspective into the fate of the family that the book isn’t able to provide.
Everyone should read this book. But I especially urge Americans to read First They Killed My Father or, at a minimum, watch the movie. Certainly, anybody with Angkor Wat on their travel bucket list should include a trip to Phnom Penh and should read this memoir.
If you enjoy audible books, I listened to the audible version of First They Killed My Father narrated by Tavia Gilbert. The narration was very good.
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one as I am, you may relate to Ung’s incredulity that the world could still spin and that the sun could still set with astounding beauty over the day when her father was killed.
Loung Ung is a writer, speaker, and advocate who works for a landmine-free world. In addition to First They Killed My Father, Ung wrote Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind and Lulu in the Sky.
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